Robert Wilson (director)  

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Robert Wilson (born 4 October 1941) is an American avant-garde stage director and playwright who has been called "[America]'s — or even the world's — foremost vanguard 'theater artist'". Over the course of his wide-ranging career, he has also worked as a choreographer, performer, painter, sculptor, video artist, and sound and lighting designer. He is best known for his collaborations with Philip Glass on Einstein on the Beach, and with numerous other artists, including Heiner Müller, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and David Byrne.


Life and career

Wilson was born in Waco, Texas, the son of Loree Velma (née Hamilton) and D.M. Wilson, a lawyer. He studied business administration at the University of Texas from 1959 to 1962. He moved to Brooklyn in 1963, receiving a BFA in architecture from the Pratt Institute in 1965. He also attended lectures by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy (widow of László Moholy-Nagy), studied painting with George J. McNeil and architecture with Paolo Soleri in Arizona.

In 1968, Wilson founded an experimental performance company, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds (named for a dancer who helped him overcome a speech impediment while a teenager). With this company, he created his first major works, beginning with 1969's The King of Spain and The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud. He began to work in opera in the early 1970s, creating Einstein on the Beach with Philip Glass, which brought the two artists worldwide fame.

In 1983-1984, Wilson planned a performance for the 1984 Summer Olympics, the CIVIL warS: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down; the complete work was to have been 12 hours long, in 6 parts. The production was only partially completed — the full event was cancelled by the Olympic Arts Festival, due to insufficient funds. In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize jury unanimously selected the CIVIL warS for the drama prize, but the supervisory board rejected the choice and gave no drama award that year.

Wilson is known for pushing the boundaries of theatre. His works are noted for their austere style, very slow movement, and often extreme scale in space or in time. The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin was a 12-hour performance, while KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace was staged on a mountaintop in Iran and lasted seven days.

In addition to his work for the stage, Wilson creates sculpture, drawings, and furniture designs. He won the Golden Lion at the 1993 Venice Biennale for a sculptural installation.

In 1996, Wilson was the recipient of The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

In 2004, Ali Hossaini offered Wilson a residency at the television channel LAB HD. Since then Wilson, with producer Esther Gordon (for among others Brad Pitt, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Deeta von Teese, and Peter Sarsgaard) and later with Matthew Shattuck, has produced dozens of high-definition videos known as the Voom Portraits. Collaborators on this well-received project included the composer Michael Galasso, artist and designer Eugene Tsai, fashion designer Kevin Santos, and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum. In addition to celebrity subjects, sitters have included royalty, animals, Nobel Prize winners and hobos.

Louis Aragon praised Wilson as: "What we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us".

Wilson is the subject of a 2006 documentary by Katharina Otto-Bernstein, Absolute Wilson.

He is currently working on a new stage musical with composer (and long-time collaborator) Tom Waits and playwright Martin McDonagh.

Robert Wilson is openly gay.



Language is one of the most important elements of theatre and Robert Wilson feels at home with commanding it many different ways. Wilson's impact on this part of theatre alone is immense. Arthur Holmberg, Professor of Theatre at Brandeis University, says that “In theatre, no one has dramatized the crisis of language with as much ferocious genius as Robert Wilson” (Holmberg 41). Wilson makes it evident in his work that what’s and why’s of language are terribly important and cannot be overlooked. Tom Waits, acclaimed songwriter and collaborator with Wilson on many works, said this about Wilson’s unique relationship with words:

“Words for Bob are like tacks on the kitchen floor in the dark of night and you’re barefoot. So Bob clears a path he can walk through words without getting hurt. Bob changes the values and shapes of words. In some sense they take on more meaning; in some cases, less.” (qtd. in Holmberg 43).

Wilson shows the importance of language through all of his works and in many varying fashions.

Wilson sees language and, down to its very ingredients, words, as a sort of “a social artifact” (Holmberg 44). Not only does language change with time but it changes with person, with culture. Using not only his experiences working with mentally handicapped children but also drafting Christopher Knowles, a renowned autistic poet, lets Wilson attack language from many views. Wilson embraces this by often “juxtaposing levels of diction - Miltonic opulence and contemporary ling, crib poetry and pre-verbal screams” (Holmberg 44) in an attempt to show his audience how elusive language really is and how ever-changing it can be. Visually showing words is another method Wilson uses to show the beauty of language. Often his set designs, program covers, and posters are graffitied with words. This allows the audience to view the “language itself” rather than “the objects and meanings it refers to” (Holmberg 45).

The lack of language becomes essential to Wilson’s work as well. In the same way an artist uses positive and negative space, Wilson uses noise and silence. In working on a production of King Lear, Wilson inadvertently describes his necessity with silence:

“The way actors are trained here is wrong. All they think about is interpreting a text. They worry about how to speak words and know nothing about their bodies. You see that by the way they walk. They don’t understand the weight of a gesture in space. A good actor can command an audience by moving one finger” (qtd. in Holmberg 49).

This emphasis on silence is blatantly displayed in some of his works. Deafman Glance is a play without words and his adaptation of Heiner Müller’s play Quartet contained a fifteen minute wordless prologue. Holmberg describes these manners stating, “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” (Holmberg 50). Celebrated twentieth century playwright Eugene Ionesco even went so far so to say Wilson “surpassed Beckett” because “[Wilson’s] silence is a silence that speaks” (Holmberg 52). This silence onstage may be unnerving to audience members but it serves a purpose. Wilson stresses how important language is by eliminating it. This device of silence is Wilson’s way of answering his own question: “Why is it no one looks? Why is it no one knows how to look? Why does no one see anything on stage?” (Holmberg 52).

Another technique Wilson uses is that of what words can mean to a particular character. His piece, I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating, features only two characters, both of whom deliver the same stream-of-consciousness monologue. In the play’s first production one character was “aloof, cold, [and] precise” while the other “brought screwball comedy… warmth and color… playful[ness]” (Holmberg 61). The different emphases and deliveries brought to the monologue two different meanings; “audiences found it hard to believe they heard the same monologue twice” (Holmberg 61). Rather than tell his audience what words are supposed to mean, he opens them up for interpretation, presenting the idea that “meanings are not tethered to words like horses to hitching posts” (Holmberg 61).


Movement is another key element in Wilson’s work. Being a dancer himself, he sees the importance of the way an actor moves onstage and knows the weight in which their movement bears. When speaking of his ‘play without words’ rendition of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, Wilson says:

“I do movement before we work on the text. Later we’ll put text and movement together. I do movement first to make sure it’s strong enough to stand on its own two feet without words. The movement must have a rhythm and structure of its own. It must not follow the text. It can reinforce a text without illustrating it. What you hear and what you see are two different layers. When you put them together, you create another texture” (qtd. in Holmberg 136).

With such an emphasis on movement, Wilson even tailors his auditions around the necessity of it. In his auditions, “Wilson often does an elaborate movement sequence” and “asks the actor to repeat it” (Holmberg 136). Thomas Derrah, an actor in the CIVIL warS, found the audition process to be baffling: “When I went in, [Wilson] asked me to walk across the room on a count of 31, sit down on a count of 7, put my hand to my forehead on a count of 59. I was mystified by the whole process” (qtd. in Holmberg 137). To further cement the importance of movement in Wilson’s works, Seth Goldstein, another actor in the CIVIL warS, stated “every movement from the moment I walked onto the platform until I left was choreographed to the second. During the scene at table all I did was count movements. All I thought about was timing” (qtd. in Holmberg 137).

When it comes time to add the text in with movement, there is still much work to be done. Wilson pays close attention to the text and still makes sure there is enough “space around a text” (qtd. in Holmberg 139) in order for the audience to soak it up. At this point, the actors know their movements and the time in which they are executed, allowing Wilson to tack the actions onto specific pieces of text. His overall goal is to have the rhythm of the text differ from that of the movement so his audience can see them as two completely different pieces, seeing each as what it is. When in the text/movement stage, Wilson often interrupts the rehearsal, saying things like “Something is wrong. We have to check your scripts to see if you put the numbers in the right place” (qtd. in Holmberg 139). He goes on to explain the importance of this:
“I know it’s hell to separate text and movement and maintain two different rhythms. It takes time to train yourself to keep tongue and body working against each other. But things happen with the body that have nothing to do with what we say. It’s more interesting if the mind and the body are in two different places, occupying different zones of reality” (qtd. in Holmberg 139).

These rhythms keep the mind on its toes, consciously and subconsciously taking in the meanings behind the movement and how it is matching up with the language.

Similar to Wilson’s use of the lack of language in his works, he also sees the importance that a lack of movement can have. In his production of Medea, Wilson arranged a scene in which the lead singer stood still during her entire song while many others moved around her. Wilson recalls that “she complained that if I didn’t give her any movements, no one would notice her. I told her if she knew how to stand, everyone would watch her. I told her to stand like a marble statue of a goddess who had been standing in the same spot for a thousand years” (qtd. in Holmberg 147). Allowing an actor to have such stage presence without ever saying a word is very provocative, which is precisely what Wilson means to accomplish with any sense of movement he puts on the stage.


"The most important part of theatre" is light, according to Wilson (qtd. in Holmberg 121). Wilson is very concerned with how images are defined onstage, and this has practically everything to do with the light that is placed on a given object. He feels that the lighting design can really bring the production to life. The set designer for Wilson’s the CIVIL warS, Tom Kamm, describes his philosophy: “a set for Wilson is a canvas for the light to hit like paint” (Holmberg 121). He goes on to explain that “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” (Holmberg 121). Wilson is “the only major director to get billing as a lighting designer” and is recognized by some as “the greatest light artist of our time” (Holmberg 122). The most provocative thing about his lighting is the fact that it is meant to be flowing rather than an off-and-on pattern, thus making his lighting “like a musical score” (Holmberg 123). Wilson’s lighting designs also feature “dense, palpable textures” and allow “people and objects to leap out from the background” (Holmberg 123). In his design for Quartett, Wilson used four hundred light cues in a span of only ninety minutes (Holmberg 122). He is a perfectionist in many respects, never calling it quits until every single aspect of his vision is achieved. A fifteen minute monologue in Quartett took two days for him to light while a single hand gesture took close to three hours (Holmberg 126). This attention to detail certainly proves his devotion to the importance of lighting, reinforcing the idea that, to Wilson, “light is the most important actor on stage” (Holmberg 128).


Wilson is also very involved with the props in his productions. He not only designs the props himself but often takes part in their construction as well. Whether it is furniture, a light bulb, or a giant crocodile, Wilson treats each as though it were a work of art in its own right. He demands that a full-scale model of each prop be constructed before the final article is made, in order “to check proportion, balance, and visual relationships” (Holmberg 128) on stage. Once he has approved the model, the crew builds the prop, and Wilson is “renowned for sending them back again and again and again until they satisfy him” (Holmberg 128). He is so strict in his attention to detail that when Jeff Muscovin, his tech director for Quartett, suggested they use an aluminum chair with a wood skin rather than a completely wooden chair, Wilson replied:

“No, Jeff, I want wood chairs. If we make them out of aluminum, they won’t sound right when they fall over and hit the floor. They’ll sound like metal, not wood. It will sound false. Just make sure you get strong wood. And no knots” (qtd. in Holmberg 129).

Such attention to detail and perfectionism usually ends up with a pricey collection of props. Although they are meant to be this way to enhance Wilson’s shows, “curators regard them as sculptures” (Holmberg 129), selling from “$4,500 to $80,000” (Gussow 113).


Further reading

  • Brecht, Stefan. 1978. The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
  • Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. 2003. History of the Theatre. Ninth edition, International edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0205410502.
  • Gussow, Mel. 1998. Theatre On The Edge. New York: Applause.
  • Holmberg, Arthur. 1996. The Theatre Of Robert Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Morey, Miguel and Carmen Pardo. 2002. Robert Wilson. Barcelona: Edicion Poligrafa S.A.
  • Otto-Bernstein, Katharine. 2006. Absolute Wilson: The Biography. New York: Prestel.
  • Quadri, Franco, Franco Bertoni, and Robert Stearns. 1998. Robert Wilson. New York: Rizzoli.
  • Shyer, Laurence. 1989. Robert Wilson And His Collaborators. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
  • Weber, Carl, ed. & trans. 1989. Explosion of a Memory: Writings by Heiner Müller. By Heiner Müller. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications. ISBN 1555540414.

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