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  • Robert Wilson and the Actor: Performing in Danton’s Death
  • Ellen Halperin-Royer (bio)

Like many postmodern artists, Robert Wilson is frequently misunderstood by those who are not familiar with his creative process. Influenced early in his career by artists, composers, and especially modern dance choreographers—Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Meredith Monk, and Alwin Nikolais—Wilson places great emphasis on visual imagery and movement. Wilson’s productions in the 1960s and 1970s were generally abstract performance pieces that utilized sound, movement, and visual images to stimulate the audience’s imagination. 1 Particularly notorious examples of Wilson’s experiments with performance time and space include Deafman Glance (1970), a seven-hour “silent opera” inspired by Wilson’s friendship with Raymond Andrews, a deaf boy, and Ka Mountain (1972), a single performance that lasted 168 continuous hours on Haft Tan Mountain, Shiraz, Iran. In these and other early works, Wilson made use of the nonprofessional performers who were part of his group of dedicated followers. Such a practice, combined with Wilson’s interest in the creation of breathtaking images, perhaps furthered a commonly held impression that Wilson could work with robots as easily as actors. Although Wilson has worked with professionals since he directed Einstein on the Beach in 1976, the majority of these performers have been vocalists and dancers from the European opera companies with which he has collaborated.

Since the mid-1980s, Wilson began to explore the adaptation and staging of canonical plays. Thomas Derrah, who performed in the CIVIL warS (German Section) (1985), Alcestis (1986), and Danton’s Death, described the development in Wilson’s work as follows:

The work he was doing then (during the CIVIL warS) was less linear, less verbal, more or less a pastiche. . . . It didn’t have a great deal of narrative. It was ramblings, free associations, and sounds. The next thing I did was Alcestis which, although close to Euripides, it was overlaid with a ten to twelve page sentence [Heiner] Müller wrote called “A description of a Picture” that [was] spoke[n] throughout. So the text was again sublimated to the visual aspect of it. And a kyogen play, The Birdcatcher from Hell was added to the end . . . I think his shift toward text is a very important one, [End Page 73] his development in his own work to actual narrative. To my knowledge this [Danton’s Death] is the most narrative of the projects so far, at least that have been constructed in this country.

Along with creating new challenges for Wilson as a director, this shift to working with canonical, narrative texts created fascinating challenges for his company of actors. While working on productions in which the text consisted of nonlinear sounds, Wilson and the performers were free to concentrate on creating striking visual images. However, while creating Danton’s Death Wilson and the actors had to communicate the characters, ideas, and emotions found in Büchner’s script to the audience.

Despite this recent narrative trend, some question remains as to whether or not Wilson’s work actually requires highly skilled acting technique. In order to better understand Wilson’s creative process and its effect on the acting company, I inquired about the possibility of observing rehearsals of Wilson’s production of Danton’s Death. In 1992, the Alley Theatre allowed me to sit behind the table of directors, stage managers, designers, and other artists who collaborated on Wilson’s production of Danton’s Death to observe a three-week workshop followed two months later by a six-week rehearsal period. Interested in learning about the way Wilson interacts with actors and how actors understood and processed their work with Wilson, I interviewed all but two of the cast members.

Many of the actors were concerned that Wilson would not value or appropriately use their skills; all of them entered the rehearsal process with some degree of cynicism. The attitude of Jon David Weigand, who acted in Danton’s Death, was typical in this regard:

I had never seen his work until the Ibsen play [When We Dead Awaken] at the ART [American Repertory Theatre]. And I had been at ART all through the rehearsal process...

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pp. 73-91
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