Robert Wilson is an American avant-garde stage director and playwright. The New York Times called him “[America]’s – or even the worlds – foremost theatre artist”[i]. Since the early ‘60s, his meticulous attention to the slightest details and visionary genius have been the driving forces behind his extensive repertoire of widely celebrated theatre and art pieces. Wilson’s expertise in language, choreography and timing, lighting, as well as his unique stage sets and props characterize his work.
Wilson’s signature manipulation of language is both overt and covert. By combining modern lingo with the poetic richness of such classic writers as John Milton, Wilson highlights the elusiveness of language and its ever-changing nature. Drawing from his own experience with a debilitating stutter during his adolescence, Wilson has a profound understanding of the power of words, not only language, and this is often reflected by covering his set designs, program covers, and posters with a graffiti of words. Another tactic used by Wilson is to demonstrate what words can mean to a particular character. His play, I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating, features only two characters, both of whom deliver the same exact monologue. The first character “was aloof, cold, [and] precise,” yet the other “brought screwball comedy, warmth, color and playfulness”[ii]. The two deliveries gave two totally different meanings to the piece, and audiences were in shock and disbelief that they had seen the same monologue twice. Wilson’s use of the absence of language is just as important as the use of language itself, “Language does many things and does them well. But we tend to shut our eyes to what language does not do well. Despite the arrogance of words – they rule traditional theatre with an iron fist – not all experience can be translated into a linguistic code.”[iii]
For those experiences that cannot be expressed through language, Wilson relies on movement and choreography. A former dancer, Wilson understands the importance of body language, every single movement he orchestrates has purpose and meaning. Often the meaning behind the actors’ movements is more important than what the character actually says on stage. Wilson says: “…movement must have a rhythm and structure of its own…What you hear and what you see are two different layers. When you put them together, you create another texture.”[iv] Every movement is choreographed and timed to the second, keeping the actors on their toes and creating two different zones of reality for the audience.
To add a third dimension to his work, Wilson relies on light, which he considers to be the fundamental ingredient. He explains: “If you know how to light, you can make shit look like gold. I paint, I build, I compose with light. Light is a magic wand.”[v] The genius of his use of light is that Wilson harnesses it to create a natural flow, similar to a music score, as opposed to a basic on-and-off pattern. Wilson is the only major director who is also a world-renowned lighting designer.
Although Wilson is primarily known as a director, he is also famous for his original and unique set designs and props. With an architecture degree from the Pratt Institute, Wilson is a true perfectionist when it comes to design. He designs, oversees and participates in the construction of all of his props, and is notorious for rejecting everything until he considers it perfect. Wilson’s designs are so original and well crafted “that curators [and art collectors] regard them as sculptures, selling from $4,500 – $80,000.”[vi]
Wilson’s affect and influence on modern theatre and art is undeniably powerful and profound. He has written and directed dozens of plays and operas over his extensive career, and achieved an incredible level of success and respect in several fields. His ability to transmit deep emotions through his artwork is synonymous with his name. Wilson’s primary goal has always been to transform his internal visions into live phantasmagorias that captivate and inspire audiences across the globe.
[i] John Rockwell, “Staging Painterly Visions”, The New York Times, November 15, 1992, section 6.
[ii] Arthur Holmberg, The Theatre of Robert Wilson, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996) 61.
[iii] Holmberg, 50.
[iv] Holmberg, 136
[v] Holmberg 121.
[vi] Mel Gussow, Theatre on the Edge, (New York: Applause, 1998) 113.
Rockwell, John. “Staging Painterly Visions”. The New York Times, November 15, 1992, section 6.
Holmber, Arthur. The Theatre of Robert Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Gussow, Mel. Theatre on the Edge. New York: Applause, 1998.