Wendy R. Williams Talks with Robert Wilson and Director Katharina Otto-Bernstein
Absolute Wilson Press Roundtable
October 24, 2006
Opposite Photo Credit
Wendy R. Williams
Robert Wilson was born the son of the Mayor of
Waco, Texas and grew up in the racially segregated
Waco of the 40's and 50's. When I received the press
release for Katharina Otto-Bernstein's documentary
about his life, Absolute Wilson, I was
intrigued because I also grew up in segregated central
Texas (in the 50's and 60's in my case) and wanted
to learn how an artist could leave Waco without
Here is my review of the documentary (be sure to scroll down to the interview after the review):
Opens Friday, October 27, 2006
Starring: Robert Wilson,
Suzanne Wilson, David Byrne, Susan Sontag, Philip
Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams
We travel through the world unseen and unseeing;
each with our own internal TV sets showing only
one show: our show, our own personal view of the
world. But then on the same pathway traveled by
many, a Diane Arbus stops and takes a photo of someone
walking on the sidewalk, a subject she saw that
no one else did. Or a Philip Perkis stops by the
side of a road and takes a photo of a desolate field
as other travelers whiz by asking, "How much
longer, aren't we there yet?"”
Robert Wilson, the subject of Katharina Otto-Bernstein's
documentary Absolute Wilson, is an artist
who definitely sees the world differently. Wilson
was born and raised in Waco, Texas, the learning
disabled homosexual son of the town mayor and his
lovely but distant wife. Waco was then and is still
a bastion of the Southern Baptist Church and the
home to Southern Baptist Baylor University. Young
Robert had trouble fitting in with his life. He
was clumsy and did not talk until he was five and
when he started talking, he stuttered. His only
friend was the socially unacceptable son of his
family's black housekeeper.
And from this seemingly unpromising beginning came
the artist Wilson. As a child he received some advice
from his sister's dance teacher, Byrd Hoffman, that
he should simply slow things down. And slow things
down he did and by doing so he saw a different world.
Young Wilson tried to fit in, even enrolling his
dyslexic self in the University of Texas to study
law. But it was to no avail. He was miserable until
he "came out" to his family and relocated
to New York to study architecture at Parsons. Once
in 1960's New York, Wilson was fascinated by the
revolutions that were taking place in theater and
dance and he vastly preferred the joy of working
in the artistic world to studying for school (he
did graduate, barely).
Absolute Wilson tell the chronological
story of Wilson's life: covering his great successes
in Europe; the play he staged in the Shah's Iran
that took seven days to perform; Einstein on
the Beach (with composer Philip Glass); and
his battle to stage the CIVIL wars during
the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (it was never staged
in its entirety). The film also tells the story
of how although Wilson is revered in Europe he is
less well known in the United States. And the film
tells the story of Wilson's work with disabled children
including the deaf mute child that Wilson adopted.
Wilson is fascinated with the way these children
see the world and borrows what he perceives to be
the images in these disabled children's internal
Wilson's lens on the world is from another dimension
of time and space. He sees vivid colors, huge spaces
filled with nothing, eloquence in silence and power
in stillness. It is a different world and one well
worth visiting. Bravo to Katharina Otto-Bernstein
for telling the story and to Robert Wilson for simply
For more on the film, log onto: www.absolutewilson.com.
Quad Cinema| 3 34 West 13th Street
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Broadway | Between 62nd and 63rd
The Interview with Robert
Wilson and Katharina Otto-Bernstein
Photo Credit Wendy R. Williams
Question to Mr. Wilson about the sources of his inspiration:
Robert Wilson: I
had no formal training. If I had gone to Yale I
would not have done the work I did. If I had planned
[my career] it was never have happened. I came to
New York and looked at the Opera and Theater and
I did not like it. Broadway plays were unbearable
to look at. The Metropolitan was stuck in the 19th
century, it was almost grotesque. I have always
been attracted to visual things.
[About how his work has always been radically different] My first work was seven hours and silent.
I have always been a huge hit in France, but when
I first presented Lohengrin at the Met,
it was met with extreme hostility.
Katharina Otto-Bernstein: I loved it. When he
put it up ten years later it was very well received.
The Times review said that he had refined the production,
but he had not. We had just become used to his vision.
He (Wilson) is ten years ahead of his time.
Question about how being from Texas with its vast flat land has affected his work:
Robert Wilson: The
landscape of Texas is in all my work. I was in Japan
and I met an artist from Brooklyn and she told me
that the Brooklyn Bridge is in all her work.
There is such a difference in American culture and
the European culture regarding art. The United States
is two hundred years old as a nation. A small town
in Germany will have an art museum and theater.
Robert Wilson: A
tiny town can have an arts budget that is twice
that of the National Endowment of Arts. We are a
very young nation. France has a commitment to protect
the art of the past and to nurture the art of the
future. Lincoln Center should be a crystal cube
reflecting what is going on all over the world (in
art). When I produced Einstein on the Beach
(with composer Philip Glass) in France, it was paid
for by the French government.
The day before 9/11, on 9/10 a Swedish newspaper wrote that the difference between the United States and Europe is that the United States has never been invaded.
If you speak about Robert Wilson in Germany,
the average person will know who he is; in the United
States they won't.
Robert Wilson: The
average age of the audience at the Metropolitan
is sixty-one. It is that way for many reasons, but
mostly because it is not affordable. When I produced
Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan,
I priced the tickets from $2 to $2000 and the $2
seats were next to the $2000 seats.
The Lincoln Center Festival is a step in the right direction. But the reason it is so expensive to work in the theater in this country is because of the unions.
Question about how Mr. Wilson would describe his work:
Robert Wilson: My
work has changed in the last thirty years but in
many ways it is the same. I start with silence.
An actor stands on the stage. You move your hand
- will that hold and audience? A good actor is like
a bear, he will never strike first; he will wait
you out. I have always been interested in animals,
how they hear with their entire body.
One time Jesseye Norman stood on stage for ten minutes
weeping and the audience was more moved by what
she felt than by her voice. You need to learn how
to stand on stage and learn how to walk on stage.
Drama 101 - learn to stand on a stage. In Japan,
China, and Bali students are trained in classical
theater and they learn to stand and walk on the
stage as a child.
You start with the body. So much of our Western
culture is about audio. The Lord gave you eyes and
ears. Let's start with what we are going to see.
Can we reinforce what we hear with what we see,
without having to decorate or illustrate. In this
kind [my kind] of theater work there is an audio
score and a visual score - like a silent movie and
a radio show. It is how they reinforce each other.
We have a right hand and a left hand; we have a
left side of the brain and a right side of the brain.
Paris was designed with a great city plan. The richness
of Paris is in how the architects filled in the
form. Every show is different; the Magic Flute
has a different palette from Wagner. And as a director
who is involved in the origination of [a work],
it is how you fill in the form.
Many thanks to Robert Wilson and Katharina Otto-Bernstein for talking with www.newyorkcool.com