How Robert Wilson changed theater—and what that means for his show at Mia

Robert Wilson met Philip Glass, the avant-garde composer, in 1973, after Glass attended a show by Wilson—The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin—that was 12 hours long and almost completely silent. Glass loved it. And the two men, retreating to Wilson’s Manhattan studio after the performance, decided they would meet every week for lunch.

Within a few months, as they ate and talked, Wilson began sketching ideas for a collaboration. (“I can’t talk without drawing,” he says. “It’s a way of speaking for me.”) They had considered Charlie Chaplin, Gandhi, and even Adolf Hitler as subjects for an opera. But when Wilson proposed Einstein—a hero to creative types who had grown up in the 1940s—their ambitions clicked.

A scene from the 2012 revival of "Einstein on the Beach" in Montpellier, France. Photo by Lucie Jansch.

A scene from the 2012 revival of “Einstein on the Beach” in Montpellier, France. Photo by Lucie Jansch.

Einstein on the Beach premiered in France, in 1976, and immediately rewrote the rules of opera and theater. Rather than a narrative biography, the show explores time and space—the subjects of Einstein’s great scientific breakthroughs—through its music, dancing, and imagery: trains, spaceships, clocks. There is no dialogue per se, only the periodic recitation of numbers and oblique references (“Mr. Bojangles” is mentioned 58 times). It is nearly five hours long.

The success of Einstein established Wilson, at 35, as the stage’s leading innovator, breaking ground no one had thought to explore.

On February 3, Mia will open “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty: Concept and Design by Robert Wilson,” a collaboration with Wilson that promises to rewrite the museum experience just as Einstein expanded the possibilities of theater. The show is based on the Qing dynasty, whose emperors ruled China for more than 250 years, from 1644 to 1911. But Wilson has eschewed the tropes of exhibitions.

One room will have a single object, shrouded in darkness. Another will be filled with hundreds. None will be labeled. Sound, light, and visitors’ own imaginations will do the evocative and entertaining work—as in a theatrical performance—of conjuring the past.

From Texas to New York

Wilson was born in 1941, and when he was 6 or 7, growing up in the red dust of Waco, Texas, he buried about 100 soup cans in his family’s backyard. Then he put tall white sticks in the cans. He liked the image, and it would repeatedly appear in his performances, in various ways, many years later. But he didn’t know what it meant, and neither did his parents, which greatly concerned them. “What’s wrong with you?” he recalls his mother asking. “What’s wrong with you?”

Wilson would spend the next 20 years or so trying to answer her. He went to business school to please his father, a lawyer. He dropped out to please himself, moving to New York in 1962 to study architecture. But instead he was drawn to experimental dance. He sat in on a rehearsal led by Martha Graham, the modernist choreographer, and confessed to her that he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.

Then, at his parents’ insistence, he moved back to Waco, where dancing was frowned upon and the theater was considered immoral. After he attempted suicide, his parents committed him to a mental hospital. And there, with the help of a sympathetic psychiatrist, he found his answer: nothing. There was nothing wrong with him that leaving Waco couldn’t cure.

He boarded a Greyhound bus the day he was discharged, and returned to New York.

The Sound of Silence

Robert Wilson, in the striped costume, onstage in "Deafman Glance," his first iconic production, in 1970.

Robert Wilson, in the striped costume, onstage in “Deafman Glance,” his first iconic production, in 1970.

Wilson had always struggled with words and speech. As a child, he had an auditory-processing disorder that severed sounds from their meaning. He stuttered, and was teased by his classmates for it. But if he just slowed down, he could get his meaning across.

When he began staging his own works, in the late 1960s, their long silences and lengthy running times were startling. He once staged a play over seven days in Iran. “If you slow things down, you notice things you hadn’t seen before,” he said. Indeed, no one had seen such things before. By the time he met Glass, in 1973, his “silent operas” had already made him famous among the international avant-garde.

In fact, Wilson loathed the avant garde. He recoiled at its cold embrace of minimalism. He thought of his work as expansive and generous, and he loved the old silent comedy of Chaplin and Buster Keaton, its pathos and, well, silence.

But Wilson rejected mainstream theater, too, with its narrative storytelling and reams of realistic dialogue, as though a book were being read onstage. A stage, after all, is simply a box with lights; there is nothing realistic about it. Artificiality, he concluded, is “more honest.”

To Lady Gaga and Beyond

Many of Wilson’s innovations were widely imitated, often poorly. His silences. His transfer of period dramas to modern settings. His use of strong light and shadow, along with white face makeup and heavy eyeliner—reminiscent of German Expressionism—to convey emotion without dialogue. By the 1990s, they would become cliches, parodied by Saturday Night Live in its “Sprockets” sketches.

But by then Wilson had moved on. He went deep into the classics: Shakespeare and Mozart and Virginia Woolf. He worked with Tom Waits, the gravel-voiced musician and actor, and Lou Reed, the proto-punk rocker, who taught him to appreciate, ironically, the “loudness of sound.”

Robert Wilson's "Noah's ark" installation for Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry, which opened last year in Manhattan.

Robert Wilson’s “Noah’s ark” installation for Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry, which opened last year in Manhattan.

He became a celebrity in his own right. For the New York Times, in 1994, he opened his Tribeca loft to a reporter who marveled at some of the artifacts from his productions—a galvanized pipe chair from Einstein on the Beach, a nest of sculptured hot dogs from a show he did with Allen Ginsberg—but mostly at his buttoned-up style, his unexpected penchant for conservative blue suits. He called Wilson “Clark Kentish.”

Recently, he has explored celebrity more directly, with a series of video portraits of Brad Pitt, Salma Hayek, and other actors in which almost nothing appears to happen. He has helped stage Lady Gaga’s theatrical performances, after she called him up for advice. (“Hi Bob. Gaga. Can you tell me something about theater?” he recalls her saying.) He made a video portrait of her, too.

The experimental work that he and others did in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s will mostly be ignored in the future, he believes, as the marketing of theater—its demand for direct messages—overtakes the desire for mystery. “It wasn’t meant to be,” he says. But he’s adamant about his approach, his willingness to let the audience “get lost.”

“People have said that it’s like watching clouds,” the critic Edwin Denby wrote of Wilson’s work. “You see something over there in the sky and you get interested in it, and meanwhile something else is happening somewhere else. And somebody says, ‘Look over there!'”

To get lost, Wilson believes, is to find a greater understanding, more personal than imposed. “The reason we work in the theater is to ask, ‘What is it?'” Wilson says. “Not to say what it is.”

Top image: Robert Wilson, photograph by Yiorgos Kaplanidis