Notes on Robert Wilson and Anna Deavere Smith--Carla Blank, UC Berkeley

Notes on Robert Wilson and Anna Deavere Smith


Carla Blank, Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies, UC Berkeley

"The reason we work in the theater is to ask, 'What is it?' Not to say what it is."
--Robert Wilson

Deafman Glance
66:53 Color, 1981
video version of the Entr'acte from the live theater work, Deafman Glance (premiered, 1970)


(Information mainly from Robert Wilson's Vision, Trevor Fairbrother, curator Boston: Museum of Fine Arts and Harry N Abrams pg. 112-114 and Robert Wilson, The Theater of Images Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, The Bryd Hoffman Foundation NY pg. 71-73)

1970: The Byrds, a company of people who worked with Robert Wilson, performed a new 7 hour piece at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. The work was structured as a series of silent pictures and stories, inspired by the drawings of Raymond Andrews ( a deaf-mute eleven year old black child whom Wilson saw being harassed by a policeman on a street in Summit, New Jersey where he was teaching art and movement classes for adults at an art center, and whom he adopted. Since Raymond Andrews knew no words, Wilson was convinced that he thought in his own language of visual signs and symbols; he encouraged Andrews to communicate through drawings. In an attempt to learn his pre-verbal mode of communication and his body language, the members of the School of Byrds copied Andrew's gestures and sounds in movement workshops. (Andrews left the Byrds in 1973 and went to school for the first time.)

"Many scenes took place around a hut in a forest, with Andrews present as a country youth with a fishing rod, sometimes seated on a bench suspended high above he stage. Wilson talks about Deafman Glance as the culmination of his approach to the major issues then confronting alternative theater: a determination not to impose on either text or characters the intentional resolution of the narrative tradition; a belief that words are not inherently more important than light, space, and movement, and that performers may be considered as compositional elements; and an attempt to topple distinctions between art and life by incorporating activities that happen as real events in real time ( as opposed to an illusionistically telescoped narrative."

1971: Deafman Glance was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and then traveled to Nancy, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam on a tour organized by the agent who took the Living Theater to Europe in the 1960s, Nonon Karlweiss. (Version in Nancy, France at the World Theatre Festival was 3-and-one-half hours)

The work was a sensation in France. It received the French Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play. Louis Aragon wrote a review in the form of a long letter of reconciliation to his dead Surrealist colleague, Andre Breton ":...(This) strange spectacle, neither ballet, nor mime, nor opera (but perhaps a deaf opera) calls forth new ways with light and shadow. (It) seems to criticize everything we do out of habit. (Deafman Glance) is an extraordinary freedom machine."

Entr'acte: "This is the opening scene--the murder scene--of Deafman Glance, and it is a good deal more than an entr'acte. It has sometimes lasted as long as an hour, depending on how Sheryl Sutton plays it. Sheryl, the Byrdwoman-in her long black Victorian dress--starts the scene standing with her back to the audience, facing a painted drop that suggests a massive stone wall. Behind her, on a raised platform built out over the stage apron, a young black boy sits on a stool, reading, while his younger sister sleeps. Both the children wear white nightgowns. At Sheryl's right is a small table on which are placed a half-filled bottle of milk, a glass, a pair of black gloves, and a knife. Sheryl stands absolutely immobile, waiting, until the intermission audience is seated and silent.

Sheryl Sutton (was born in New Orleans, raised in Chicago, a graduate at the University of Iowa when Wilson found her there in 1970) She has no clear idea of what the murders signify or why their effect is so stunning. "Maybe that's why I'm still here, I'm still trying to find out what it is that Bob does."

For Sheryl, the murder has 3 parts, each with its own particular tempo: drawing on the gloves (medium slow), pouring the milk and giving it to the children (quick) and the killings themselves (very slow). The tempo with which she turns away from the backdrop and puts on the long black gloves determines the tempos of the two other parts, and no two performances are ever quite the same. It is a ritual--a slow and undeviating series of movements that Sheryl has come to think of as a kind of dance. She pours the milk and carries it to the reading boy, who drinks; she returns the glass to the table and takes up the knife; she crosses again to the boy, and slowly slides the blade into his body and gently cradles him as he falls forward to the floor. The same sequence is repeated with the girl. Then, as Sheryl wipes the knife for the second time and returns it to the table, the boy in knee pants and suspenders comes on from stage left and cries out. He cries again and again, perhaps 40 times, while Sheryl walks slowly over to where he is standing. She covers his eyes with her black-gloved hand. Her hand moves downward to his mouth and the cry is cut off.

Central to understanding this work are three formative influences:

Wilson had a speech impediment, which was cleared up at about age 17, when a theater instructor, Byrd Hoffman, told him he could speak if he slowed down. His active mind had been spewing out images faster than his tongue could control them. This translates in his work to his frequent devices of freezing real time and extending stage time, giving audiences spaces to think.

As a young adult, he worked as therapist with brain damaged children. He found that slow motion tasks awakened patients' sensitivity to immediate sensation.

The third major influence was the work and films of Dr. Dan Stern, an experimental psychiatrist that Wilson met through Jerome Robbins (who financed some early works). Stern showed Wilson his slow motion films, in which the infinitesimally minute body movements of infants and their mothers were revealed to be a highly complex, highly dramatic language. These films disclose a world of gestural communication that is not visible otherwise: a baby cries and the mother reaches to pick it up; what we see with our eyes is the large movement, the tender gesture--but when the films is shown in slow or stop motion, frame by frame, we can see that the mother's initial reaction, in almost every case is to make a lunge toward the child, and that the child's reaction is to recoil in what looks very much like terror. Wilson says "So many different things are going on, and the baby is picking them up. I'd like to deal with some of those things in the theater, if that is possible. I guess what I'm really interested in is communication."

Excerpts from rehearsals of the Walker Art Center premiere production in the video It's Clean, It Just Looks Dirty

"The Knee Plays, " the American section from the CIVIL WarS: a tree is best measured when it is down. Scenario and Direction: Robert Wilson; Music and words: David Byrne; Choreography: Suzushi Hanayagi; Design: Robert Wilson, David Byrne and Jun Matsuno; Lighting: Robert Wilson and Julie Archer. 1984, Premiered at Walker Art Center.

The CIVIL WarS: a tree is best measured when it is down was a project made in 6 sections, more than 5 years in the making, costing millions ($14 to $24 million have been some estimates). Six sections were premiered in 6 countries, including cities of Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Cologne performed in 12 languages. Performers ranged from opera stars Jessye Norman and Hildegaard Behrens to rocker David Bowie and stars of the Japanese Noh and Kabuki theaters. Composers Philip Glass and David Byrne, Hans Peter Kuhn; Argentine filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky; Japanese costume designer Yoshio Yabara; Writers Susan Sontag and Heiner Muller; and Japanese choreographer, Suzushi Hanayagi. Although it was supposed to come together at 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, it was canceled due to lack of funding, and the 6 sections have never been performed together. The work uses history freely, hopping from time period to time period, freeing history from general chronology. Wilson's starting point was Matthew Brady's photos from Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, and then he mixed different times and places to bring in any number of historical confrontations "which comment on man's long journey toward brotherhood." The piece moves from Africa to Imperial Japan on Jules Verne's Nautilus. Characters mix fact and fiction: Lincoln, Capt. Nemo, Frederick the Great, Don Quixote, Mata Hari, Karl Marx, Robt. E. Lee and horse Traveler, Joan of Arc, Voltaire, Hercules, Brady, Commodore Perry. excepted, abbreviated notes based on the Minneapolis Tribune, 4/22/84, and program

Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera (video; 58 minutes)

EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH a collaboration by Robert Wilson / Philip Glass / Lucinda Childs: documentary and archival footage from the 1984 revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of the work which was premiered in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera House (4 1/2 hours) a Musical theater / spectacle / meditation and interviews with Wilson, Glass, and members of the revival cast

The original production of Einstein on the Beach, an opera in 4 acts by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass with choreography by Andrew de Groat, was created with a 36 member cast, including Sheryl Sutton and Lucinda Childs. It was performed without interruption for 5 hours. Premiered in July, 1976 at Festival d'Avignon, the production toured Hamburg, Paris Belgrade, Venice, Brussels, Rotterdam, and finally traveled to New York City for 2 performances in November, 1976. The production costs (including rental of the Metropolitan Opera, NYC) left Wilson's Byrd Hoffman Foundation $121,000 in debt. In December, 1976, to help pay off the debt, his offered his first show of drawings, held at Paula Cooper Gallery. The opera was a co-equal collaboration between Wilson and Glass. They worked out the scenario together and fed off each other's ideas.

This is not a narrative form; it doesn't tell a story or deal with biography or history, but instead takes off from the popular image of Einstein. It works by association of a shared dream. Wilson says: "It's not trying to illustrate Einstein the way that history books do. It's trying to present a poetical interpretation of the man.....The character of the person becomes what the piece is about. The more you know about the person, the better." Glass says: "What we did with Einstein was to take a person....make him the subject. It was a way in which the person replaces the idea of plot or story."

There are three quotations from Einstein that seem central to the making and understanding of the work: "In the universe, everything that happens has a reason, even if we don't know what it is." "The most beautiful experience one can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science." "In the universe, when anything else moves faster, time moves slower."

Miscellaneous notes on Wilson:

ROBERT WILSON (b. 1941) Grew up in Waco, Texas. When he was 17 he overcame his speech impediment with the help of Miss Byrd Hoffman, a dance instructor in her 70s who also worked with brain-damaged children. Started college at Univ. of Texas (Austin) in business administration (to please his father) and helped with children's theater productions in Waco and worked with brain-damaged children for the first time. Studied painting with George McNeil, Paris, 1962. Moved to NYC in 1962. In 1963 began attending Pratt, in the interior design department and received a BFA, in 1965. Apprenticed to Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti Community, Arizona 1966. For the rest of the decade held various teaching positions in NYC, working as a special instructor for public school children in Harlem with reading difficulties; physical therapist to brain-damaged children; consultant and teacher for Headstart; coordinator of theater programs for pre-scholer, paraplegics, and iron-lung patients in city hospitals.

Since 1970 has directed nearly 100 theater, opera, dance, film and video works, including: Deafman Glance (70); Death Destruction & Detroit (I, 79; II, 87) for Schaubuhne Theater in Berlin; the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, and sites; Doktor Faustus an opera based on Thomas Mann novel; Orlando, a play based on the Virginia Woolf novel (89); The Black Rider: the casting of the magic bullets, a collaboration with Tom Waits and Wm Burroughs, for Thalia Theater, Hamburg (90)

Conceptual ideas discussed in interviews throughout Einstein on the Beach

Author, designer, director. Thinks big. Concept of theater rooted in the visual arts. Very associative work. We may not know what it means but it means something to us

Key to his art is in counterpoint. Juxtaposes the unexpected: a period opera staged in modern setting or a computer rather than a candelabra sitting on a baroque commode. Objects should not be decorations. They are meant to have an artistic life of their own "The world's a library" he says, indicating that ideas for images come from his window, his travels, his dreams Pipe chairs from Einstein captures quintessence of Wilson (Sells limited editions of his furniture, sculpture, drawings priced from $4,500 - $80,000.)

Admires Cunningham, Cage, Balanchine, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin and Bill Irwin

Thinks of himself as a classicist, reinventing the past by asking the questions.

Visionary theater: transcends theatrical conventions, making an integrated tapestry of image and sounds. Precise, direct linkage between idea and execution.

Works unfold like visual music where such things as meaning are perceived subconsciously. It is this "interior screen" where reality occurs for him, where we go beyond specific words into an international language. Screen of visual images that align or not: gesture/movt.; decor; light

Works continue the style of painted panoramas, Victorian pantomimes, and historical spectacles.

3 ways of measuring space:

  • portraits -- still lifes -- landscapes
  • CloseUp -- Med. shot -- Long shot
  • knee plays -- trains trials buildings -- dance fields

    from The A.R.T. News, 4/86 Vol VI, #3 "The stage picture as a mask: In silent movie you can only see the text, but you can still think about the way it sounds. There is so much space for the listener, because we can hear the sound of the text in our imagination. If we take a radio play, the boundaries of the images are limitless because we can imagine whatever we want. There's a voice in both and there's an image in both: one is external and one is internal." Mask presents different image from what is being said. "Our theatrical language has been limited by literature. That is not to say that words are unimportant. But the "visual book' doesn't have to be subservient to what you hear."

    ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: FIRES IN THE MIRROR (video; 90 minutes) 1993

    One woman play conceived, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith, based on her stage play. Directed by George C. Wolfe

    A mix of art and journalism. The work is built on Smith's verbatim excerpts of interviews she conducted with victims and eyewitnesses of the events, and adversaries and advocates of the issues that swirl around the 1991 conflicts that took place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Anna Deavere Smith portrays all of these interviews, becoming nearly 30 characters.

    "My goal is to create with the audience a state of `we,' (Deavere) said in a telephone interview from her San Francisco apartment. "One thing live theater can and must do is to create communities that will not exist otherwise. It can put people together that ordinarily wouldn't be found sitting next to each other. What's valuable is for me to present people who have a very large will to communicate, a will that's larger than the wall between us.

    "If we are going to realize `We the People,' we have to find out who `we' are, she continued. "It's crucial that we have a responsible American public, and to achieve that, more people have to be heard and more people have to be given the skills to speak." Smith quoted in the Oakland Tribune, 1/9/94

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