A legend talks life in theater and the arts

Robert Wilson captivates Rice audiences during Campbell Lecture Series

The life and times of one of the world’s foremost theater and visual artists took center stage in the Rice Media Center during the School of Humanities’ 2014 Campbell Lecture Series March 26-28.

While at Rice to present the annual Campbell Lecture Series, director and playwright Robert Wilson (at right, standing) also met with a group of opera and visual and dramatic arts students. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Over the course of three evening lectures, Robert Wilson, a charismatic Texas-born director and playwright, displayed his gift for storytelling, stagecraft and mimicry to bring to life the personal and professional influences and artistic collaborations that have defined his career of more than three decades.

On opening night, Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway introduced Wilson as “a man who is very much in all of the arts … who has distinguished himself as a choreographer, a performer, painter, sculptor, video artist, theater producer and designer, sound and lighting designer … and, it was only last year that he entered into a new kind of genre … in that he designed a set for Lady Gaga at the MTV Awards Ceremony.”

Wilson discussed the early influences on the work he is doing today. He began with an explanation of his raison d’etre. “The reason I work as an artist is to ask questions — that is to say, ‘What is it?’, not to say what something is,” Wilson said. “For if we know what it is we’re doing, there’s no reason in doing it.”

After moving to New York City in the mid-1960s, Wilson shunned conventional musical theater and found himself drawn to the work of pioneering choreographers George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Martha Graham.

“I went to see Broadway plays and I didn’t like them, and I still don’t for the most part,” Wilson said. “And I went to the opera and I didn’t like that either, and I still don’t for the most part. But then I saw the work of George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet and I liked that very much, and I still like it. What I liked about Balanchine is that it was formal; it was classical in its construction. I liked the way the dancers behaved on stage, how they danced for themselves first and allowed to the audience to come to them.”

Mentoring and drawing on the gifts of youth have been early and lifelong concerns for Wilson. He said one of his early works, “Deafman Glance,” was inspired by Raymond Andrews, a 13-year-old African-American youth whom Wilson saved from incarceration when his deafness was misperceived as being delinquent behavior. This seven-hour “silent opera” with no spoken words ran in Paris for five months, in a theater seating well over 2,000, and sold out every night.

Wilson also recounted how a recording by the brain-damaged Christopher Knowles at 13 helped to inspire “The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin,” a production that involved more than eight months of rehearsal with 126 performers, running for 12 hours, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Wilson devoted great attention to Knowles, who had spent 11 of his 13 years in institutions, and recognized that there was a hidden mathematical symmetry to the boy’s speech.

In addition to Lady Gaga, whom Wilson described as “an amazing actress, brilliant, with a depth of emotion,” his artistic collaborators have included many writers and musicians, such as Heiner Müller, Tom Waits, Susan Sontag, Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Lou Reed and Jessye Norman. He has also left his imprint on masterworks such as Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Debussy’s “Pelléas et Melisande,” Brecht/Weill’s “Threepenny Opera,” Büchner’s “Woyzeck,” Jean de la Fontaine’s “Fables” and Homer’s “Odyssey.”

The Campbell Lecture Series was made possible by a gift from Rice alumnus T.C. Campbell ’34 through the Campbell Fund. Each year, the series brings a distinguished humanities scholar to campus to give lectures on a topic of broad humanistic interest. Through special arrangements with the University of Chicago Press, each lectures are later published as a book. Previous Campbell lecturers include Robert Pinsky (2005), Ha Jin (2006), Alix Ohlin (2007), Stephen Greenblatt (2008), James Cuno (2009), Zadie Smith (2010), Stanley Fish (2012) and Patrick Summers (2013).

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.