“Curtain goes up and you have a black box . . . 10 seconds. The box goes vertical . . . 12 seconds. The devil, Pegleg, will come out of the box and introduce the company.” Robert Wilson is sketching out on paper the storyboard for The Black Rider, his 1990 spectacle that is in revival at the Ahmanson Theater, where he has just concluded a rehearsal. He’s dressed in a black sports coat, blue jeans and loafers, and looks younger than his 64 years. Wilson’s office has no windows; a bouquet of Easter lilies sits wilting in a vase.
The pop opera, based on a German folktale, involves a young man who bargains with the devil for a handful of magic bullets that will ensure him victory in a shooting contest — and marriage to the love of his life. Most people know the story from Carl Maria von Weber’s romantic opera Der Freischütz. Wilson’s nearly three-hour production incorporates images from German Expressionism and the sounds of cabarets and carnivals, with some wildly captivating pictures. In one scene, the lovers sing to each other suspended above the stage; in another, actors move about the skinned carcasses of game animals littered onstage. But it’s all about that black box.
Taking a pencil and sheet of paper to draw miniature images from his projects is something the director-designer has done before for interviewers. As Wilson’s left hand traces across the page, he withdraws into the effort, as though in a trance. I try to interrupt, but he continues to describe the progress of the large coffinlike prop until it disappears in the show’s finale: “The black box will fly away — let’s give it some smoke.” He ends by scribbling a graphite cloud under the square.
“This is what I do,” he says in a deliberate voice that could belong to a high school wood-shop teacher or driving instructor — to anyone who understands the importance of clear instructions. “My participation as an author is in putting together a visual book, and it’s usually the place from where we start. I stage it all silently and videotape it, and then they can work with the videotape.”
“They,” in the case of The Black Rider, were Tom Waits, who composed the music and songs, and the late William S. Burroughs, who wrote the show’s book. It wasn’t an overnight process.
“We put the text in later — almost a year later,” says Wilson, who then searches for a description of his method. “This visual book becomes, uh, this, this — it is the text. Like, uh, what? Well, no one really works this way in theater.”
Inside America’s hermetically sealed arts world, the creator of Einstein on the Beach and the CIVIL warS has been lionized by colleagues and the culture press, although the blogs of some individuals who have worked or auditioned for him describe a cold, cerebrally aloof figure barely aware of their existence. Some attribute these traits to an awkward upbringing in Waco, Texas, just as Wilson’s automatous voice has been traced to a severe speech impediment that he overcame in childhood. Whatever its sources, Wilson’s impersonal persona makes his few flashes of emotion all the more vivid.
He remains an artistic contradiction because, while his involvement in every aspect of his projects links him to the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk tradition of the auteur, Wilson doesn’t walk alone. Instead, he invariably seeks high-level collaborators like Waits and Burroughs for his operas and theater events.
Wilson begins to cough and asks an assistant to put on a teakettle. As Wilson begins to violently hack, the assistant brings some bottled water, which, in a baroquely hospitable gesture, the gagging Wilson offers to me first.
Many people will recognize The Black Rider even if they are unfamiliar with the story, because it is a spectacle pulsing with arresting imagery and declamatory text that add up to nothing. For about 30 years, auteur-driven stage works have been the most celebrated theater events, and while that has sometimes produced emotionally engaged monologists like Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian or Danny Hoch, more often it has become synonymous with multimedia bombast. On the sawdust end of this spectrum lie Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group, while its more intellectual proponents are people like Wilson, George Coates, Peter Sellars and the late Reza Abdoh. These last names are probably better known in Europe, where state-subsidized operas and performance festivals have nurtured big-picture artists hailing from an America of shrinking theater budgets.
Over the years, Wilson and others have built careers on commissions and festivals supported by the francs, marks and pounds sterling of arts-friendly countries. It would be foolish to paint Wilson and the others I’ve mentioned with the same brush, because each has a distinct political temperament. Still, they all prefer long, languorously staged productions (Einstein ran five hours, while Wilson’s earlier The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin clocked in at 12) that rely upon aphoristic scripts and dissonant imagery, and for which “narrative” is the other N word.
When I ask Wilson why he chose The Black Rider, he replies, “I think this piece William and Tom and I made is something very special.” Wilson’s not being evasive — this is his answer; in other words, it’s not the story that matters but the process of putting up the show. Although a fastidious controller, Wilson is also the collaborator par excellence and fondly remembers working with Waits.
“Tom and I are completely different men. We dress in different ways, we have different lifestyles. I’m much cooler in my sensibilities, he’s more romantic. The two of us together are stronger than we are separately.” Hearing this, one feels that The Black Rider was chosen almost randomly, as was the sheet of paper on which Wilson jotted down his storyboard. Actors, themes and sets are all little boxes that can be sketched in, made bigger or vertical with the stroke of a pencil.
The Black Rider’s source material is a straightforward Faustian tale, but while Wilson’s production can be viewed in any number of ways (anti-gun, anti-war, pro-tolerance — even pro-vegetarian), he avoids suggesting any messages. In this sense, Wilson’s work, like that of many spectacle auteurs, fits snugly into the postmodern canon — productions whose ideas and spare dialogue seem to emerge from stage fog double-dipped in irony.
“I don’t talk about interpretations,” Wilson says. “Interpretation is not the responsibility of the director. It is not the responsibility of the actor. It is not the responsibility of the author. Interpretation is the responsibility of the public.”
By illustration he recalls, as he has elsewhere, an outdoor trip to British Columbia.
“A bear broke into the cabin. I hold a torch on it for half an hour and it doesn’t move. My arm begins to ache. An hour passes. I still hold the torch. The bear still doesn’t move, but I can see he’s relaxing. I am relaxing. Then he turns around and leaves. If only the audience could be like that bear.”
This may explain his insistence that actors shun interpreting his work.
“I try to tell the actors to not assign a specific meaning to it,” he says, oblivious now to the teakettle’s whistle, which continues until his assistant returns to the office after running an errand. “ ‘I don’t care what you think — think the opposite.’ To attach a meaning to it would negate the possibility of all the other ideas.”
Possibility is everything for Wilson — nothing is ruled out.
“One plus one is two. But two is one. And we often forget about that.” Then, perhaps sensing his interviewer’s confusion, Wilson simplifies things, displaying the same kind of hospitality he did when offering the bottle of water. “Summer cannot exist without winter. Heaven can’t exist without hell.”
THE BLACK RIDER: THE CASTING OF THE MAGIC BULLETS | Directed by ROBERT WILSON | Music and lyrics by TOM WAITS | Book by WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS | Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through June 11 | (213) 628-2772