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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 a conflagration.

Here is my review of the documentary (be sure to scroll down to the interview after the review):


Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s
Absolute Wilson
Opens Friday, October 27, 2006

Starring: Robert Wilson, Suzanne Wilson, David Byrne, Susan Sontag, Philip Glass

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 TV's.

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 being the

For more on the film, log onto: www.absolutewilson.com.

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The Interview with Robert Wilson and Katharina Otto-Bernstein

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.

Katharina Otto-Bernstein: 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.

Katharina Otto-Bernstein: 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


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