PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.1 (2005) 36-54
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Performance and Ethics
Questions for the 21St Century
Peter Sellars interviewed by Bonnie Marranca
One of the most prolific and multifaceted contemporary artists, Peter Sellars in recent years has directed a wide range of works in theatre, opera, television, film, and video, in Europe and the U.S. He is well-known for his highly original earlier stagings of Mozart's operas Cosi Fan Tutte, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, as well as premieres of John Adams's Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and El Niño. He has been Director of the American National Theatre in Washington, Artistic Director of the 1990 and 1993 Los Angeles Festivals, and is currently a Professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA. Sellars has collaborated with The Wooster Group, created radio episodes for The Museum of Contemporary Art's "The Territory of Art" series, and directed the feature film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His productions have been commissioned by the major opera houses and theatres in Europe, appearing also in many festivals abroad. Among the recent works he has staged are Olivier Messaien's St. Francoise d'Assise, Stravinsky's The Story of a Soldier, Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, Tan Dun's Peony Pavilion. He also worked with Bill Viola onthe 25th year survey of the video artist's work. Sellars's latest theatre piece, Children of Herakles, is one of the many classics he has staged throughout his career, a project created with the participation of refugees, government officials, writers, and immigrants in several European cities and in the U.S., in Boston. Sellars is a recipient of the MacArthur Prize Fellowship and was awarded the Erasmus Prize for his contributions to European culture. This interview was taped during the run of Children of Herakles at Teatre Lliure as part of Forum Barcelona 2004, on June 16, 2004.
Here we are in Barcelona at the end of your six-week tour of Children of Herakles. Why don't we talk about your efforts to open up a Greek classic for contemporary audiences?
Well, for me, one of the most important things about Greek theatre is theatre as part of government, theatre as part of a democracy, theatre as one of the primary cornerstone institutions of democracy. Trying to give citizens both the information they need to vote in a way that has some depth of perception and at the same time [End Page 36] has them hear voices they don't normally hear. What moves me so much about Greek theatre is this aspiration towards the care and maintenance part of democracy, which of course is where America is in serious trouble. You can make all the declarations you want, but in fact working democracy is constantly menaced, for example, by money. That's why Euripides is filled with all these speeches against money having the final voice. As we know in America, your ability to enter public space, which has been privatized, is your ability to pay.
One of the most powerful images of Greek theatre is this giant ear carved into the side of a mountain—a listening space. The power of Greek theatre is acoustic. It was about creating architecture in which a single voice reaches the top of the mountain. The Greek masks took the voice and projected it further. And the idea is that you make a structure that has a seat for every citizen. In Greece, democracy is a wonderful thing unless you happen to be a woman, a child, or a foreigner. Those are the people who couldn't vote and had no citizenship. Every Greek play is about women, children, and foreigners. So the idea that you're actually creating this special sound space, listening space, for the voices that are not heard in the senate, for exactly the voices that have been ignored in the corridors of power, as a society you say, wait...