For anyone intrigued or mystified by the fascinating and elusive work of Robert Wilson—or the ongoing evolution of avant-garde theatre—watching Katharina Otto-Bernstein's documentary Absolute Wilson is a must. She first met Wilson at a cocktail party in 1999 when he asked her for a shot of vodka. Three hours of dialogue followed, and over the five years it took for Otto-Bernstein to film Wilson in a multitude of settings, including several continents, and tackling scores of projects, their lives intertwined in ways that are certainly unusual for a filmmaker and her subject. Wilson, for example, drove Otto-Bernstein to the hospital when she was ready to give birth to her first child. In return, Otto-Bernstein captured for posterity at least two cases of Wilson's famously fiery temper ferociously flaring up, his unstinting perfectionism exploding to the surface.
What is unusual about Absolute Wilson is the remarkable degree to which Wilson's life and work are teased apart and explored by the film even as they are not necessarily explained or decoded for the average viewer. While Wilson has a reputation for being much more popularly successful, critically accepted, and generally understood in Europe than in the United States, many people forget that his story is classically American: He was born in Waco, Texas; raised in a cold and strict religious household, making his eventual admission of his homosexuality a divisive family issue; and spent years with a speech disability so debilitating that his overcoming of it led to the creation of one of his signature theatrical effects—stage movements that are so agonizingly slow as to be nearly impenetrable, practically Kabuki-like. Wilson's genealogy, sexuality, and the disparate roots and branches of his curious brand of theatre are all seen in complementary and overlapping terms in the film, which ultimately presents itself as a seamless and organic peek into the life and work of an irresistibly unique artist and thinker. Absolute Wilson may not clarify completely (or even in part) everything you've ever wondered about Einstein on the Beach, his legendary collaboration with composer Philip Glass; The Black Rider, his equally renowned creation with songwriter Tom Waits and postmodern novelist William S. Burroughs; or Time Rocker, his music-theatre experiment with rock guru Lou Reed, but it does shed just enough light to give you a sense of all the things that likely make Wilson tick.
What is unusual, too, about Absolute Wilson is how the film avoids dissecting Wilson's work in academic terms, a touch for which many will be grateful. The reasons why a particular shaft of light is yellow or pink; the thought process behind Wilson's devising of a seven-day-long play in Iran in 1972; the real deal behind the cultlike adulation of the members of his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds back in the 1960s and '70s—these may all continue to be excellent fodder for theses, think pieces, and dissertations, but what the film does in lieu of playing cerebral games is paint a vivid portrait of Wilson that makes him a real person and astonishingly accessible. One section of the film retraces the disheartening events of 1983 and 1984—when his massive operatic work the CIVIL warS, involving multiple productions in several countries all coalescing at once, failed to come to fruition as part of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics—presenting a classic example of Wilson operating at his double-barreled best, the visionary artist as unrepentant dreamer.
There's another notable moment in the film when Otto-Bernstein gets a shot of Wilson's calendar—a sea of black amid a flotilla of arrows and squiggles, all pointing to an itinerary that might put him in the middle of Asia on a Monday, in Central Europe on a Wednesday, and back to New York City on a Friday. Not surprisingly, with the film's release in New York on Oct. 27 and Los Angeles on Jan. 5, Wilson's calendar is more ink-riddled than ever. In a wide-ranging email exchange, however, he offered some thoughts about the film and his life and work.
Back Stage: As an artist known for being reclusive, how does it feel to have your work and life laid bare for all to see? Specifically, there are at least two moments in the film when you are seen and heard in rehearsal being terribly upset and dissatisfied. Is this a side of you that you wish for the general public to see?
Wilson: It is not my life that is laid open in the film. It is someone's interpretation of my life. I was lucky that the interpreter was Katharina Otto-Bernstein, a good friend. It was always important to me to leave her complete freedom regarding what she would do with the material she collected about my life and my work. The documentary is about my life, but it is her film. It is not always easy to look at your life from the outside. Katharina followed me with her camera for five years, and of course she filmed moments where I was very dissatisfied with one thing or another. Translating what I see in my mind to a stage can be a frustrating process.
Back Stage: Do you agree that in revealing much about your personal life as well as your work, the viewer may draw links and parallels?
Wilson: I do not think people need to know anything about my life to understand my work. It is sometimes possible to trace some specific motif to a specific experience, but that should not be the reason it is there. Any aspect in a work of art has to be there for an artistic reason. Reference to biography does not explain the artistic logic. There are parallels between my life and my work, but that in itself is not very interesting.
Back Stage: Arnold Aronson's American Avant-Garde Theatre makes several analyses of your work. He discusses your contribution to Jean-Claude van Itallie's America Hurrah and your own early work, Baby Blood, relating the latter especially to the 1960s phenomenon of "happenings." Do you think theatre artists should try to re-create "happenings" today?
Wilson: There is no such thing as "happenings" as a theatrical form. If a "happening" tries to capture an element of chance in a public performance, that is something that has always been and will continue to be important to the theatre. If it refers to something that is against any structure, it is difficult to see how it could be art. In my work, there always is a structure within which actors have a lot of freedom to create their own artwork.
Back Stage: Aronson also says your work disrupts "the act of viewing by slowing down action to almost imperceptible movement" and that this forces "spectators to re-examine their own notions of performance and their own perceptual processes." Do you agree? Why is this important?
Wilson: I think it's a good thing to see something old and familiar in a new light. Perception changes when you slow down a lot. That is something that you do not have to force. It will happen automatically. I do not want my audience to re-examine their notions of performance. I want to change the way they see.
Back Stage: You were acclaimed for your work with playwright Heiner Müller [Hamletmachine]. What about his plays attracted you?
Wilson: Heiner was one of the great artists working for the theatre, and a good friend. He understood structure as an important element of text, and that is close to the way I think visually about the stage. He was not interested in psychological realism, but in showing structure in human relationships, in power, in history. Heiner was sometimes accused of dehumanizing his characters. To me, he brought out more clearly what it means to be human.
Back Stage: What is the most efficient way for actors to approach a non-text-based, nonlinear work? Are there specific training methods—specifically, physical training—you recommend?
Wilson: Acting is about doing something, not about reading. The easiest things are the most difficult to do on stage: to stand, to walk. Trying to stand or walk casually, naturalistically, is already to fail. There is nothing natural about being on a stage, trying to act like there is no audience in front of you. I always tell my actors that the space in the back is as important as the space in front of them. They need both to create the tension that will hold the audience's attention. It is important to get the movements right before even thinking about the text. I rehearse silently at first, without text or music. I put the movements together with the sound much later.
Back Stage: What will define the avant-garde in the 21st century? Will technology reach parity with the performer or the musician?
Wilson: Art is something humans produce for other humans. It is difficult to see how technology can play the role of the artist unless it becomes truly creative. Technology is a tool, not an end in itself. I am all in favor of technological progress. Today I can do things with light that I could only dream of 20 or 30 years ago. But that does not make everything you can do with it art. I do not think of myself as an avant-garde artist. I am a classicist. I like form, structure. To be an avant-garde artist means not compromising one's aesthetic vision. Hence, it is very personal. I would not define it for anybody else.
Back Stage:What can actors learn from seeing your work? What can they learn from working with you?
Wilson: I don't know; that is really up to the actors. Perhaps they can learn to pay attention to details, to the angle a joint is bent, to the exact position of your fingers. They can experience that there is real freedom in following, very precisely, prescribed movements.
Back Stage:In a culture increasingly based on the power of the visual—the news we watch, the games we play—do you think your work will become viewed as more accessible in the future?
Wilson: This is a question people only ask me in the U.S. In Europe, nobody thinks I am avant-garde or inaccessible. My production of La Fontaine's Fables at the Comédie-Française is one of their longest-running shows because people understand the aesthetics. Europeans are more used to seeing different kinds of theatre than people in the U.S. It has more to do with a certain theatre tradition than with a shift towards visual communication.