Theater director and playwright Robert Wilson, now eighty years old, is a legend in the field. Raised in Waco, he studied business at the University of Texas at Austin before heading off to New York, where he developed the spare, avant-garde style that has become his signature. His innovative work has earned him numerous prizes—including a brush with a Pulitzer—and interest from documentary filmmakers (Absolute Wilson, Robert Wilson: The Beauty of the Mysterious, Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars). With 184 stage productions to his name, he shows no signs of slowing. Though he has not staged a Texas production since the nineties, he returns April 22 to the Houston Grand Opera for the opening of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, running through May 8. We talked with Wilson during a rehearsal break.
Texas Monthly: What surprises those who haven’t worked with you before?
Robert Wilson: Well, my theater is formal. It’s different from the way most directors work. Very often when I go to the opera, the staging is so busy that I am distracted from listening to the music. I work a lot with stillness. It’s unusual for singers in the beginning to get used to that idea. It’s another world I create; it’s not a world that you see wherever you are, if you’re in your office or if you’re on the streets or at home. This is a different world. It’s a world that’s created for a stage. Light is different. The space is different. The way you walk is different. The way you sing is different than the way you sing in the shower. The way you use stand is not the way you stand on the street waiting for a bus.
I never did like naturalism. For me, naturalism on stage always seems to be a lie. Being on stage is something artificial. And if we accept it is something artificial, then in a very strange way it appears in my eyes to be more natural. Turandot is a fairy tale. It’s not a story that you can portray as naturalistic.
TM: And what attracted you to it?
RW: I liked the music, and it’s also very special that the costumes for this production were designed by the great-great-grandson of Puccini.
RW: Yeah. Jacques Reynaud is the costume designer, and he’s an old and very good friend of mine, and he wanted me to do this work.
TM: What elements do you normally look for in a story?
RW: I often think of a color, but what color is right for Turandot? So to me, it’s red. And I ask myself simply, what is this opera about? It’s a love story. It’s a fairy tale. Then I think about: can I maintain one line throughout the opera, from beginning to the end? We buy a ticket to go see an opera called Turandot, and so her entrance is important. The first time we see Turandot: how is she seen and what is the line, her story, her life throughout the opera? In this production, she is first seen high up on a balcony above everyone, and she’s all alone. And the last image of the opera is that she’s seen very near the audience and the company is far to the back of the stage, and she’s standing all alone. So that’s a line that goes to through the opera.
TM: I’ve read about your need to be playful in the work.
RW: I think if we don’t have humor then we shouldn’t work. This is a very dark story about an evil woman, so we need light. If we put black on black, it’s one thing. But as soon as you put a little white on the black, the black is blacker. All dark moments need light. This terrible woman, this evil woman, somehow she has to have fun being evil. Otherwise, it becomes darker, this story.
TM: Do you like that sweet spot where horror meets comedy?
RW: No, I think irony is a better word. There’s always the space in the back of the words that gives them power. If you’re standing on stage, that makes the space in front of you stronger. It’s like a bow: if you pull the bow, there’s more tension. If the words need the dark moments, you render them with irony. I did a musical with Tom Waits and William Burroughs called The Black Rider. Tom wrote a song where the devil says, “Come along with the Black Rider; you’re going to have a gay old time. Dance around in your bones; drink your blood like wine.” But it’s the irony, you know—”gay old time,” “drink your blood like wine.” William Burroughs, who wrote the text, said, “that’s how the potato mashes,” “that’s how the stock market crashes.” It’s the irony. “That’s how the cookie crumbles.” So irony is looking into the space behind the words, and that’s necessary for the character of Turandot. There’s a certain irony. I’m not sure you call it a comedy.
TM: Can you talk about the influence the legendary theater director Paul Baker may have had on you when you were growing up in Waco? Did you take a class with him?
RW: I was a part of a children’s program that was organized by an actress who had worked with Baker. And I saw his work. There was no other theater to see in Waco.
TM: Well, that that would make a difference.
RW: Yes. He was working at that time at Baylor University, and he brought in great actors, international or film stars. Charles Laughton. Burgess Meredith. He staged Hamlet with three characters playing Hamlet—it was not a naturalistic way of portraying Hamlet.
TM: I’ve also read about your work with the Austin Mental Health Hospital back when you were attending UT-Austin. Did that experience make an impression on you artistically?
RW: Yes, I think so. I was employed to take food to the different wards. A lot of the patients had been cut off from the outside world for years and they’d become catatonic or they didn’t speak. That had a profound influence. My first play was written with a deaf-mute boy who had never been to school. He didn’t know words.
But even in the first stages of directing Turandot, I stage it silently. I don’t have the music of Puccini. I don’t have the libretto. It’s not sung. I stage it visually so what I see has its own structure, its own validity. Later, I add music and I add text.
One of the first things I do is light the space. I studied architecture, and in my first weeks of school, the American architect Louis Kahn gave a lecture, and he said, “Students start with light.” That had a profound influence on me. Without light, there’s no space.
TM: And no sound, at first?
RW: I directed, years ago, Wagner’s Ring. And so I had Brunhild stand without singing. I said, “Can you stand ten minutes—just stand?” This is very strange for the for the singer because she’s used to singing and she knows she has an aria—maybe it’s going to be five minutes or six minutes—but can she stand without singing for five or ten minutes and still hold the tension?
I work with body language, and it’s closer to animal behavior. So if you’re in a room with a black panther, and this black panther is just sitting there, you’d be very careful about moving. And that black panther knows stillness has the power. Ezra Pound said when he was in Pisa, “The fourth dimension is stillness and the power over wild beasts.” So I work with stillness in the beginning too.
TM: I read that you often watch television with the sound off.
RW: I seldom turn the sound on.
TM: Are you studying how it’s playing visually?
RW: When you have no sound, you begin to read body language and then you understand something different than if you were listening to the sound. There is there is a language there, in movement.
TM: Well, I only have one other question, but it’s very broad: What is theater for?
RW: Theater serves a unique function in society. It’s a forum where people come together and can share something together for a brief period of time. Art has the possibility of uniting us. And the reason that we make theater—the reason we call it a play—is we’re playing. We’re having fun. And if you don’t have fun playing, then don’t do it. The reason we call it a play is that we’re playing on stage and it’s fun to see an actor playing on stage. So don’t take it too seriously. It’s just a stupid fairy tale.
This interview has been condensed and edited.