Robert Wilson: My unlikely inspirations
Avant-garde visionary Robert Wilson’s most recent UK production was The Black Rider, a collaboration with the equally influential William S Burroughs and Tom Waits, that wowed audiences throughout Europe and the US earlier this year. Before a performances at London’s Barbican theatre, Wilson mused on the three greatest influences on his work.
Wilson’s first influence was, as he puts it, ‘looking at dance’. Having grown up in a small Texas town, it was not until he was in his early twenties that Wilson went to New York and discovered the work of George Balanchine and Martha Graham. These revelatory ‘plotless ballets’ had no coherent narrative or prescriptive interpretation, but allowed him to ‘come to them’. He became curious at how ‘abstraction in the arts was not thought about in western theatre’. In Einstein on the Beach they were ‘trying to make a story out of something where there was no story…it’s a different way of constructing thoughts’. In Japan, explains Wilson, they ‘got it’ because of the legacy of the Noh play ‘where abstract, pure movement is used of its own sake and it can stand alone and have meaning’. It is still difficult for western audiences to accept abstraction on stage, as we ‘have to attach meaning’.
Even as a child, Wilson ‘was attracted to the abstract; the mystique of buildings…paintings’ and later came to admire practitioners such as Merce Cunningham and John Cage, able as he was ‘to simply see something and hear something without having to instigate or second meaning’. There is a tension in ‘hearing’ and ‘seeing’, Wilson insists. Our instinct is to want the audio and visual to illustrate, ‘but it doesn’t have to!’
Wilson’s second influence was the result of a bizarre happening in 1967 when he observed ‘a policeman about to hit a small afro-Caribbean boy over the head with a club’. As a responsible human being, Wilson explains, he went with them to the police station. With no appropriate adult present, and with no vocabulary, the young boy, Raymond Andrews, was to be institutionalised. Wilson could see that the boy was deaf, a condition neither the policeman or the thirteen people with whom the child lived, recognised. Wilson, who didn’t particularly want a son but ‘didn’t want to see him locked up’ ended up an unlikely guardian However as a single man trying to adopt a young black boy, it wasn’t easy. ‘Some anthropologists believe that movement came before sound. One night, I said to Raymond, put a sound with this movement’. Wilson crosses his hands and lays his palms on his chest, a gentle gesture. Wilson demonstrates Raymond’s response by suddenly emitting an incongruous, torturous scream. ‘And from this’, he reveals, ‘all of my work today, I first do silently. I start with movement of the body then later add audio score.’
In the early Seventies Wilson was introduced to his third greatest influence. Living in a loft in lower Manhattan, he was visited by s neighbour, a teacher who had brought a tape recording of an autistic, institutionalised, thirteen-year old boy, Chris Knowles. ‘Em, em, em, em, em, em, em, em, em, em, Emily likes TV because A…Emily likes T.V. because B…Emily likes T.V. because C…Emily likes TV because A, she likes Bugs Bunny.’
Wilson saw an extraordinary logic to the sounds on the tape, and he was haunted by it during an eighteen month development period for a twelve-hour silent opera The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973). Ten days before the work was shown he called Chris’s parents, inviting their son to the opera. Shortly, before the opening night there was a knock on his dressing-room door: Chris had come to say hi. Wilson found himself asking: ‘Chris, would you like to be in my play tonight?’ He confesses, this was not a light decision – ‘we’d been rehearsing for five months meticulously – every space between the fingers, the angle of the eyes…’ When asked ‘but what would he do?’ Wilson responded: ‘No idea. How about it, Chris?’ Minutes later, Wilson took Chris by the hand and they walked onto the stage. They stood in silence for a while then Wilson began to speak: ‘Em, em, em, em, em, em, em, Emily likes TV because A…’ ‘She likes Bugs Bunny’, said Chris.
There were four performances of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin and Chris Knowles was in all four of them. Their collaboration continued, ‘working with words like molecules’ as Wilson puts it, and they made A Letter for Queen Victoria in 1974.
From Raymond Andrews, Wilson learned that ‘the body hears’. In Chris Knowles, he recognised the ‘mathematic and geometric’ composition of his seemingly random thought processes. It was these experiences which shaped Wilson’s work most profoundly, observations from ‘mixing with people from other walks of life.’
‘If I’d studied theatre’, sighs Wilson, ‘I wouldn’t be making the work I’m making today. Somehow, if we can mix art with life we can reveal our culture’.
Written by Claire Lizzimore
Source: Direct Magazine Winter 2004-2005