Robert Wilson.
The plan was that, on a Wednesday morning in July, I would take the bus to Southampton, New York, where a publicist would pick me up and drive me to the Watermill Center about five minutes down the road. There I would interview Robert Wilson, the center’s founder and artistic director, from 1 to 2 p.m., after which I would have lunch with the Watermill staff before taking the 3:15 bus back to Manhattan. The reason for interviewing Wilson was that part of his private art collection had just returned from France, where it had been on view at the Louvre.
Wilson is 73 and the pre-eminent avant-garde theater director in the world. His admirers have included Susan Sontag, Samuel Beckett, and Heiner Müller (from whom he inherited the mantle of theatrical innovation) as well as celebrities from Tom Waits to David Byrne to Lady Gaga. An anecdote in the recent memoir of his frequent collaborator Philip Glass offers insight into his methods. Glass describes sitting with Wilson during auditions where Wilson would ask actors to simply walk across the stage, and know immediately whether or not he could work with them based on their movements alone.
His productions are slow and meandering, perhaps a function of a childhood stutter, which he got over when a woman named Byrd Hoffman, an artist in Wilson’s hometown of Waco, Texas, told him, “You should take more time to speak,” a story he recounted in a 2006 documentary about his life. Wilson named his theater company after her and went on to work with children himself, helping students with learning disabilities embrace simple movements of the body—looking at their right hand, for instance—and these kinds of gestures, often exaggerated to the point of absurdity, would later dominate his work. Many of his plays go on for several hours. In the case of Ka Mountain, Wilson’s 1972 production atop a mountain in Iran, the running time was seven days, and many performers were hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion. He prefers nonprofessional actors and encourages audience members to enter and exit a performance as they please. His early productions were all silent. When he began working with text, he made Beckett seem wordy. He has a reputation for obsessiveness.
When I arrived at the center, there were about one hundred people on site, a combination of staff and artists from the center’s international summer program, which brings in around 80 people from all over the world to study with Wilson and his collaborators and work on performance projects to be presented at Watermill’s summer benefit. A handful of artists live for the season in small cubicles in a dormitory. The cubicles—two beds in each, with only partially constructed walls—offer no privacy. The center has purchased the lot next door and is planning another building, but for now people slept in these close quarters, as well as in rented houses scattered about town. Wilson’s guidance of these protégés takes on strange forms. During morning meetings, he’ll often lead the group in 30 minutes of silence.
In the woods behind the center, a number of people were on their knees, quietly digging in the dirt and rigging up electrical cords in preparation for the benefit. A power saw buzzed in a woodshop. In a large storage room inside the main building—referred to by the staff as “the archive”—Wilson’s collection was being sifted through, taken out of wooden crates and arranged on long rows of shelves and on the floor. There were hundreds of objects—ceramic vases, glassware, furniture, paintings, some of them thousands of years old and some of them new, all being dusted off and catalogued for Wilson to examine more closely later. Shoes are forbidden in most areas indoors. Every single person called Wilson “Bob.” He was the main topic of discussion. Walking the grounds felt like entering into one of Wilson’s plays. Everyone had a role in Wilson’s carefully casted life.
Around 1 p.m. Wilson’s agent appeared to tell me that Wilson couldn’t meet as planned; Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton had just arrived, and the two of them had to talk. Expecting to be sent home, I was instead asked if I’d care to join “Bob and Tilda” on a tour of Wilson’s residence. Feeling like I’d somehow faked my way into this situation, I tried to say “that’s fine” as if I were conceding some small defeat